"Neilllll?!" Max called out.
His voice echoed through the seemingly empty forest but nothing stirred in reply, not even the birds. The forest was just filled with darkness that was looming over all that inhabited it. The moon cast shadows all over the forest, making the trees seem like the monster kids imagined were under their beds. The windless night made everything as empty and lonely as a void.
"Nikkiiii!?!" He shouted hopelessly, knowing he was just as lost or even more lost than he was a mere hour ago.
The three were carrying through an escape attempt less than two hours ago where they would build a raft out of the sticks they collected and some rope. Then they would've rode down a river and out of the camp grounds. It would have been easier and more safe than borrowing a boat from The Woodscouts, especially after the last time they trusted Snake to help them out.
Nikki was supposed to keep a lookout for David, Neil was supposed to build the raft and Max just had to look for the sticks. There was a pattern where he would look in a certain area then return to Nikki and Neil, each area getting further away from where his friends were. He always found his way back to the two until he took a wrong turn. One wrong turn turned into two, two turned into three. Before Max even knew it, he was holding a bundle of sticks in the middle of the forest in an area he didn't know.
After a few more minutes of calling his friend's names, the doubt that he would find his friends overwhelmed the hope he would find them which left him sitting by a tree in yet another area of the forest he didn't recognise. He sighed to himself, knowing he would have to wait a while to be found. It was better than getting even more lost.
The eerie quietness of the forest was confronting in a way he would never admit to. It was too quiet, he was too alone. The only sounds keeping him sane were his soft breathing and the sound of his body shuffling on the ground. Besides those sounds he was just left with the judgemental noise inside his head, telling him he was worthless and letting everyone he knew down by getting lost.
What was David going to think? A part of him was hoping that him and his friends would've gotten caught by the counsellor when they were still "escaping". Max didn't like camp or anything but he tolerated it, barely. If he actually escaped, it would only disappoint David and would make him doubt his own adequate abilities as a camp counsellor. It didn't matter that much. David could burn in hell for all he cared. Max didn't care.
He wondered what Nikki and Neil were doing. They would have been looking for him, right? A part of him was hoping that they were worried sick and were looking for him. They knew that he would only be a few minutes. On the other hand, they might have thought he ditched them. Max was a big enough asshole for his friends to think he could do something like that. It wasn't that big of a stretch to say that they were angry at him.
He could explain everything to everyone later when he got out of the forest. Someone would definitely go looking for him and then he would come back to camp in a mood worse than ever before. He would be back and cause havoc amongst all the campers, making his counsellor's lives a living hell. The thought brought a smile to his face.
Although the forest was dangerous, he would rather be lost there than somewhere in the city where some batshit crazy druggie could do something to him or he could choke on the polluted air. It was also harder to find people in the sea of people with other weirdos wanting to kidnap him or some shit.
The forest was also quite beautiful at night but he would never admit it, especially to an annoying counsellor with red hair that would undoubtedly take him on more torturous hikes. The bright stars looked angelic in the clear, dark sky where David would often point out constellations. The pine trees had a comforting smell to them, almost like David but not unbearable. The wild flowers and ferns festooned the forest nicely, making it look like a fairy tale.
His limbs were heavy from all the exercise he was put through that day. The one day the lazy counsellor's actually pulled off making an obstacle course and they were able to play on it was the one day he got lost in the forest at night and needed to survive. His exhausted mind needed a rest from the worry of being lost or escaping camp. Max knew better than to fall asleep in the middle of the forest but he would much rather fall asleep and get killed than have even one second to himself to start reflecting. Camp was always noisy and there was always a distraction so he never really had to think about his life for too long. Thank God.
The haunting thoughts that plagued his mind at night were threatening to come back, the silence calling them. Every day he tried to wear himself down until he was too tired to think but most nights it wouldn't work, keeping him up for hours as he was rethinking all his choices. This would result him being tired the next day where he would have to take in caffeine to keep him going and use the least amount of energy he could. Then he would flop down in his bed, barely even being able to say goodnight to Neil and have nightmares float through his brain.
As much as it was tempting to keep himself distracted by exploring the forest, Max knew he had to stay in that spot. He had to make himself stay awake, even if the dark thoughts were coming.
The sound of twigs snapping close to the boy was enough to pull him out of his thoughts. A foreboding feeling, that he hadn't felt since he met Daniel, came over him. Max was sure that his gut was doing flips as his heart raced. A fat, animal with black fur was snarling at him, walking towards him on all fours. He unintentionally met the animal's black, soulless eyes.
Max heaved in a deep breaths against his will. His eyes blinked rapidly, expecting to wake up from a crazy dream that he wasn't happening. His reality couldn't a happening. A fucking brown bear wasn't standing twenty-something feet away from him! The boy leaned further into the tree, not being able to take his eyes off of the deadly creature. It was just unbelievable.
Five more steps from the bear was enough to make Max pull himself together. His heart was pumping faster than he ever thought it could. He helped himself up with his shaky hands, his noodle arms almost giving out in their paralysed fear. It was a bear. They learned about bears a couple of weeks ago. Max tried desperately to grip the memory that had almost slipped away the day he got it.
There were two main bears he had to watch out for in that area and many different approaches, right? Oh fuck he was screwed. Max trembled harder with every step the bear took. His mind screamed at him to run, fucking run as far away as he could into the night where that fucking bear wouldn't be able to smell the sweat dripping down his face. One thing he took from the lecture was that running was the last thing he should do.
He attempted to steady his breathing. He never makes the right decision when he's pressured or when there is literally no manipulation involved. There was no counsellor to blackmail, no cultist to trick, not even a fucking idiot to turn into the government. It was just him with a wild animal that he couldn't control.
David's voice rung through his head. He didn't think he would be so happy to be reminded of it.
"Back away slowly," it said. "Don't let it think you're a threat."
And that was what he did. He stepped away from the tree and then walked back slowly. Max didn't dare take his eyes off the bear, not knowing how it would react.
The bear stopped. Max let out a sigh of relief, his tense body relaxing slightly.
The bear then started walking again but faster, like a stride. It growled louder. Fuck.
Only one thing echoed against the memory of David's instructions.
Max's slow walk began to quicken with the pace of the bear.
'Don't run. Back away slowly.'
Yeah, well what did David fucking know?
Max's shaking legs could barely hold him up. He whimpered against his will.
Fuck! The bear was getting closer and growling louder. Max's sick stomach told him he was going to die. He was going to fucking die!
'RUN! RUN! FUCKING RUN!'
Max's body automatically spun around the other way. The forest blurred past him as his tiny legs carried him as far as he could. He instantly regretted his decision but it was too late. He could hear the heavy footsteps of the bear behind him getting closer and closer.
What could he even fucking do?
"HELP!" Max screamed.
The word bounced around every area of the forest. Once again, nothing else could be heard beside his and the bear's feet thudding on the forest floor along with his desperate panting.
"SOMEONE PLEASE!" He cried with a raspy voice.
Tears of hopelessness started welling in his eyes. He couldn't go out just yet! He was ten! He was supposed to be tall enough to drive the bus that would hit his camp counsellor, and not crash anything else. There was so much more he could do! So many people he could prove wrong!
The screams in his mind were overlapping each other like hellish discord, telling him he wanted to live, reminding him of his regrets, taunting him with darkness as eternal as the forest.
"DAVIIIIID!!" was the name he first thought of. The one person he could count on but knew would never come.
The small boy didn't see the rock through his eyesight that was blurry with tears. He fell face first to the ground with a thud. Pain blossomed throughout his nose, making him cry out against his will.
He waited in anticipation for the bear to strike, to tear him into tiny shreds, to eat his bloody corpse then wonder into the woods like it was any other day. He expected the claws that would eventually rip into him to be his last and most painful experience. He let out another pathetic whimper, curling into his quivering form.
The gory attack never came, much to his confusion. Instead, the snarl of another animal rang in the forest and other animal footsteps trampled behind him.
Max shook in his little ball, too scared to even move. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he gritted his teeth in fear. The forest floor rumbled with the thuds of animal paws. He heard two different types of growls and barks battling against each other behind him.
It was a minute later when he realised the bear wasn't about to chomp into him. The bear seemed to be preoccupied with the other animal behind him. Max cautiously uncurled himself from the ball, taking in deep breaths to steady himself. He forced himself up and looked behind him.
The new animal, a big, red wolf, charged at the bear with its fangs out. The bear bellowed when the wolf's teeth sunk into its neck, drawing blood. The wolf growled ruthlessly, shaking its head with the bear's neck still caught in its jaw. The blood that oozed from the bear's neck, down it's body and into the wolf's mouth almost made the helpless bystander gag.
As far as Max knew, the wolf was really rare. Not only was it a bright red, a colour Max didn't even know a wolf could have, but it was significantly bigger than what he as taught a wolf was supposed to be. He saw a wolf when he was younger but it was only just taller than the eight year old at the time. The violent wolf in front of him was at least twice the size of Max at ten years old. The moonlight that reflected in the wolf's ocean green eyes made it only look more violent and powerful.
The bear was littered with scratches and wounds as it weakly clawed at the wolf. Its fur was soaked in blood that was dripping onto the forest floor. The wolf, however, was almost unscathed and full of energy. The bear clearly should have had an advantage over the wolf since it was larger in height and weight but the wolf's agility made the bear vulnerable.
It was the most awesome thing that Max had ever seen in his life but he couldn't enjoy it, because he was scared or going to die if he did. He couldn't pull his eyes away from the gory show in front of him. He couldn't get his weak legs to move. His tears had dried up yet his face was still sweating. His heart was beating out of control as his vision swam. Max didn't know whether he was going to piss his pants or puke.
The wolf let go of the bear's neck, panting wildly, then swiftly pounced on the bear. The bear flung its paws around in defence, not aiming for anything. The wolf yelped in agony when large claws cut through its back. The wolf backed away, putting itself in front of Max defensively like he was a cub. Fuck, it was fighting the bear to eat him. The grizzly backed away, mirroring the wolf's actions.
Max ran while he could. His tiny legs carried his tiny body so quickly he thought he could run on air if he tried.
The boy dared to look back at the two animals. The bear and wolf were no longer standing across from each other. The bear had its back turned away from the wolf, hobbling into the forest. A trail of blood was dripping from the bear as it disappeared into the darkness. The wolf's bark that rumbled throughout the forest was enough to turn Max back around. It was coming for him next and he knew it.
The air blew through Max's curls as he ran, drying the sweat sticking in his hair. His nose throbbed in a painful ache that running only made worse. The fluid leaking out of his nose went in his mouth, leaving a metallic, bitter taste. He hastily wiped his upper lip with his hoodie leave, accidentally bumping his nose. He yelped in surprise when his nose started to hurt twice as much. A dark stain was left on his hoodie. Even though his nose was hurting, he knew it wasn't broken. He knew what a broken nose felt like.
Max didn't even think to look behind him since it would only slow him down. He just had to get away from the wolf then he was safe for the time being. Every step took him further into a part of the forest that he had never been in before. He was more hopelessly lost than before and probably deeper into a part with a lot more animals. The deeper he went, the darker the forest got.
Although his legs were getting tired, he couldn't stop running. If he even stopped for a second it would allow the wolf to smell him and his stupid, bloody nose. He knew that there was no way in hell he would be getting out of that forest alive but he would be damned it he didn't try. There was no chance of beating a wolf that could run a million times faster than him.
'Fuck,' he thought to himself.
After turning a few corners, fucking damning him more than he ever thought possible, he finally decided to listen to his legs and slow down. After mere minutes of trudging through the forest, he stopped to catch his breath with his hands on his knees. He looked down at the ground, allowing the blood and sweat on his face to drop to the floor.
Max was more lost than he ever thought he would be in a million years. He was in the middle of the fucking woods and he would never get out without getting killed. There was nothing he could do.
Go back, be mauled to death by a wolf.
Move forward, get killed by another animal.
Max felt his throat tighten as his eyes started to water. The realisation that he was doomed dawned upon him in one big wave he didn't see coming. Of course, he thought that he was lost before but there was that slight glimmer of hope, blinding him to the harsh truth he didn't know how to accept. He didn't have time to accept the truth before it hit him harder than a car at full speed. He tried desperately to hold back the tears forming in his eyes.
The forest was quiet and still, too quiet and still. The only things that could fill in the silence were his thoughts. For example, the thought that being found would not necessarily be a good thing.
He knew if he made it back to camp that David and Gwen would give him shit for his mistake. They would surely punish him, not that he cared. Having his pudding taken away would fucking ruin his week even more. But there was something else tapping at the back of his mind. David, would he hate him? He would be so disappointed, but that didn't matter. He didn't care. The thought of David giving him that sad look with those dull eyes didn't phase him at all, even when it made his heart sink.
There was an element of trust between the two. On multiple occasions Max and David had stuck up for each other. They had each other's back, even when Max was being an asshole. The boy couldn't count the times when his camp counsellor would notice when he was feeling uncomfortable and asked what was wrong. Max would never tell him what was wrong but that still didn't take away from the effort. Where was he? Where was Max?
Max had always coped with being lost. From a young age he was always told about how he was a mistake. He wasn't a kid, a boy with his own interests and talents like all the other kids. He wasn't meant to even exist and no one was thankful that he did.
What could a mistake do?
What could a mistake accomplish?
Could a mistake make anyone proud?
How could anyone deal with a mistake?
Somehow he survived six years at school. The kids and teachers all said he was smart and he managed to never get bullied, mainly because he didn't hang around anyone. But he was a mistake. That was all he was, at least that's what he was told. Those grades were just a mistake, like him. A mistake didn't deserve to burden his parents every moment he was alive.
Some people would tell him that he was a cool loner who never cared about what anyone thought. Other's would call him an asshole who only looked out for himself. He was also known as a schemer who made people laugh. But how could he be any of that when he was a mistake? Everyone always told him who he was before he had any idea to figure it out for himself.
It was like the world was giving him ideas for as long as he could remember, when he was so young he didn't even know to trust his own judgement. By the time he found out about how much the outside world lied to everyone it was too late. The mantras his parents kept repeating drumming into his brain were already accepted as his entire identity.
It was like he was wondering in the darkness, bruised and alone. He didn't know where the answers were, the way out. Streaks of truth would sometimes seep through the gaps of leaves that made his mind overcast. He was lost and it didn't seem like he had a way out. He felt so small in the eternity of his mind as if he were prey, waiting for a vicious animal to tear him apart.
He always felt eyes burning through the back of his head as if he were being watched. Max looked around for another animal, maybe the last one he would ever see. The silent forest would allow him to hear any animal that could sneak up on him.
God, he was so alone. For someone who was so used to being alone he wasn't handling it well. Tears were streaming down his face as he let out a sob. Max just wanted to get out of the forest he was stuck in. He wrapped his arms around himself as he hiccuped, wanting someone or something to just lead him to safety. He didn't like how he longed for company like a little boy who didn't know the world.
At least he had company at camp. Neil and Nikki tolerated him and at least made him feel okay about himself for a little while. David and Gwen were the ones who would bring him up when he felt down. They would help him out of the situations he got himself into at camp, which wasn't that often. Max would count on Mr Honeynuts when there was no one else to turn to but running into a grizzly bear didn't make him keen on cuddling his bear over a real person.
Max wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his hoodie he used to wipe his bloody nose. He had to keep walking. There was no time for a breakdown.
As soon as Max took his first step there was rustling coming from the bushed. He whipped his head around to see what was making the noise, knowing the whatever it was it wouldn't be good. Before he knew it, he was staring into the wolf's green eyes again. Its chin was coated in blood that Max assumed was from the bear, making it look more savage than before.
Max's body was on autopilot when he took in a sharp breath before turning around and breaking into another sprint. His legs didn't even know if he could survive running any longer, too sore from being overworked.
The streams of moonlight in the forest became fewer as he took himself deeper. There was a sickening reminder that even though he couldn't see well in the dark, wolves were meant for hunting in the night. He could here the wolf's feet swiftly patting on the ground behind him. For an agile wolf, it sure had a slow pace for running.
There was no barking, snarling or anything remotely antagonistic coning from the wolf. It just seemed to effortlessly jog behind Max like it was taunting him. If it were a regular wolf he would have been dead already. It was almost pitch black with no light anywhere.
Max turned a corner, hoping to throw the wolf off but ran into a bush. He mentally cursed at himself for making such a stupid mistake. Max was stuck in a fucking bush, hanging upside down with his feet up in the air. That was something Spacekid would have done, not Max.
The boy found his breathing get even quicker when he heard the wolf's feet pattering towards the bush.
Max twisted his body in a vain attempt to get out. He kicked his legs like a toddler throwing a tantrum. When he could feel the gentle breaths of the wolf he thrashed his body up and down until he as finally lose. His body sprung out of the bushes and fell to the other side.
He hit the ground with a flood then rolled forwards. For some reason he just kept rolling, faster and faster. Max's vision blurred from everything spinning around him as different parts of the forest hit his body. He couldn't hear the wolf chasing after him over the sound of his body smashing against the dirt.
Sticks and twigs scratched his small face, forcing his eyes closed. He was pretty sure something had torn his hoodie. It wasn't like it wasn't already ruined. Max no longer had any control of his body. He could only yelp out in pain when his arm hit a rock or when something hit him in the nose.
All that rang in his mind were the constant plead to make the tumble stop. It was only a gateway to where he was going to be next. It was a door, a long, agonising, drawn out door. Wherever he ended up would be better than waiting in limbo.
His rolling came to a halt when he could no longer feel the ground below him. Max felt like he was floating before the air started to rapidly brush past him. His heart plummeted when he realised he was falling. He screamed out in terror for the few seconds he was in the air.
Max knew what it was like to have his life flash before his eyes in that moment. He had spend so much time internalising what was said to him at a young age that when he came to camp he didn't know who he was. The people at camp had a much different impression of him but he never thought they were right. He was still the little shit that burdened everyone. People would be happy with him gone.
At least he somewhat turned over a new leaf with David. Originally he tried to ruin him, break him to the point where he would question his entire philosophy on life. As time passed and he evolved, they started to help each other out. Maybe the person he became wasn't the ungrateful virus that plagued the lives of everyone he was in. Maybe it was someone who actually cared about stuff and other people.
If he wanted to die as any version of himself. He would want to die as the version that helped his friends, saved camp and made his counsellor happy a few times. He was somewhat proud of that person, even when he parents never would be.
His thoughts were interrupted by an embrace of freezing water. Max's body made a big splash as he plummeted in head first.
In a split second all sound was distant and he couldn't tell which way was up. Bubbled swirled around him, tickling his skin. Before he could think to swim towards the bubbles, Max felt his head hit something hard and everything was gone.